ISTANBUL - Turkish security forces detained five elected Kurdish mayors Monday in anti-terror raids, a move that was condemned by human rights groups, as Turkey is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.
The mayors are members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which swiftly attacked the detentions.
"We reject with hatred this vile attempt that does not shy away from showing enmity against Kurds, even in these difficult days when the whole world is battling an epidemic," said Mithat Sancar, co-leader of the HDP.
Sancar told reporters Monday that security forces seized municipal offices in the city of Batman and in the towns of Egil, Silvan, Lice and Ergani. Local media broadcast images of public workers locked out of their workplaces.
The HDP said the municipalities were in the forefront of trying to contain the virus.
The detentions occurred across Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, the center of a decades-long war by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against the Turkish state.
The government accuses the HDP of providing logistic and tacit support to the PKK through its network of mayors, a charge the party denies.
In an ongoing crackdown, over 30 elected HDP mayors have been removed from office under anti-terror legislation and replaced with government-appointed trustees.
But with Turkey facing a health emergency over the coronavirus, the latest detentions are drawing widespread criticism.
"In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, the interior minister is intent on hounding the HDP by removing the mayors of the Southeast and therefore depriving thousands of voters of their choice," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"The grounds of imprisonment are very vague assertions, scant evidence," Sinclair-Webb said. “Much of the evidence is based on secret witnesses. There is a pattern of complete misuse of the charge of terrorism against people. There is no proof."
"In fear of Allah, in this period, we need unity and to work," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Neither the ruling AKP or state officials have so far commented on the detentions.
The latest crackdown on the HDP comes as the AKP indicated it was considering a mass release of prisoners.
Turkey's prison population has more than doubled since ongoing crackdowns on the country's pro-Kurdish movement, and in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup.
Earlier this month, national and international human rights groups called for action to ease prison overcrowding, given fears over COVID-19.
"We are extremely concerned about Turkish prisons, because they are very overcrowded. The prison population is almost 300,000, which is very high for a country the size of Turkey," Sinclair-Webb said. "There are a lot of worries of access to medical help in prisons at the best of the times, let alone the worst of times."
Mehmet Mus, deputy parliamentary head of the AKP, confirmed his party was looking into legal steps to ease the prison population.
"The government has accelerated an important plan to provide early parole for some prisoners,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Now, that is welcome."
She added, "But the government has so far said they will exempt prisoners charged under terrorism charges and crimes against the state. (In) reality, that includes many journalists, mayors, politicians and human rights defenders."
According to international media watchdogs, Turkey is one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world.
A local newspaper editor in the Kocaeli province was detained by police over the weekend for reporting on the coronavirus. He was released after questioning.
Police have also held several people for social media posts about the coronavirus. The government insists it is determined to prevent people from spreading panic.
On Sunday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said that nine people had died from COVID-19, bringing the total number of deaths to 30. The number of confirmed cases rose from 289 to 1,236.
Turkish authorities stepped up restrictions to contain the virus. In a presidential decree issued Sunday, some civil servant workers were allowed to work at home.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu stepped up pressure on medical product manufacturers and accused some companies of hoarding.
"Some of the manufacturers stockpile the masks. We warned them again on Sunday night to sign contracts with the Ministry of Health," he said.
Soylu announced Sunday that the first raids on manufacturers had begun and that authorities will seize mask-producing factories if they don't agree to sell to the state.
On Monday, banking hours were restricted. Istanbul’s world-renowned Grand Bazaar was temporarily closed. All entertainment venues, including restaurants and cinemas, are closed, along with schools and universities. Prayers are no longer held in mosques.